ust is everywhere, both on planet Earth and throughout the cosmos. Usually regarded as an annoyance at cleaning time, this humble substance actually plays an important role in everything from the formation of stars to the falling of rain. A new book by noted science writer Hannah Holmes proves that the subject of dust is anything but dry.
In The Secret Life of Dust Holmes tells us that the substance which comes in a bewildering array of shapes, sizes and compositions may also be responsible for the extinction of several species, including the dinosaurs and, perhaps in time, our own. Holmes' fascinating and deeply researched account assembles the views of a number of scientists who devoted their careers to studying this omnipresent substance. Dust coalesced billions of years ago to form the first stars, which in turn manufactured heavier atoms such as carbon, the basic building block of terrestrial life. When stars explode, they shatter into huge glowing clouds of gas and dust that become nurseries for new stars. Dark clouds of interstellar dust, though, can block earthbound telescopes and obscure these and other celestial marvels. A good deal of dust is manmade. As Holmes reveals, people don't just create it through agriculture and industry. Like Pigpen in the Peanuts comic strip, each of us walks the earth in a cloud of dust, shedding fragments of skin and bits of lint torn from our clothes through friction. With all that dust around, Holmes' look at the hazards it can pose is rather unsettling. A more immediate threat than some far-off nuclear winter, dust of various kinds kills people every day all over the world. Lung diseases such as silicosis affect desert dwellers who inhale tiny sand particles; people contract cancer from secondhand smoke; and babies play on floors that are the inevitable destination of gravity-bound lead and chemical dusts. A welcome addition to The Secret Life of Dust is an appendix of Web sites that illustrate Holmes' intriguing revelations about the topic. A gifted writer, Holmes turns a seemingly unremarkable substance into the stuff of a great story.
Gregory Harris is a writer and editor living in Indianapolis.